CAL MONROE whistled as he poured a glass of orange juice, then retrieved his bagel when it popped up from the toaster. He spread on a thick layer of low-fat cream cheese before carrying his plate and glass into the living room of his condo, where the television was tuned to CNN. The Sunday edition of the New York Times was waiting on the coffee table, and he lowered himself onto the leather sofa with a contented sigh to begin his typical Sunday morning ritual: a light breakfast and a quick catch-up of the news before he set out for a nice long run around Central Park. The other six days of the week were filled with all the rewards and challenges of being the senior partner at one of New York City’s most prestigious law firms, but Sunday was the day when he could relax and catch his breath before diving back into the high-stress world of corporate law.
Thirty minutes later, however, his sense of contentment had vanished. He stared in disbelief at the article that dominated the society pages, gushing that Dane Coulter and Portia Blueblood-Hyphen-Snob were officially announcing their engagement with a formal celebratory ball to be held on Valentine’s Day. The large color photo of the couple showed a slender blonde woman standing close to blond-haired, brown-eyed Dane, who looked more like a cornered animal than a man thrilled about getting married.
A string of curses escaped Cal, and he raked his fingers through his auburn hair in agitation, unable to believe Dane hadn’t warned him. He drew in a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. Dane didn’t owe him any explanations. They were friends, nothing more, and Dane had it hard enough with his Machiavellian asshole of a father trying to control every aspect of his life. In fact, this engagement had Randolph Coulter’s fingerprints all over it. The old bastard ruled his family with an iron fist. He’d been the one to decide where Dane went to college and what he majored in, and then, of course, there was no question that Dane would become the junior partner in Randolph’s law firm—whether Dane wanted to or not.
And Randolph hated Cal. They’d gone at each other in court plenty of times, but it was Cal’s open homosexuality and his work on marriage equality that really angered Randolph. He’d even referred to Cal as a “damned queer” in front of a reporter, an observation that had made it into the local news, and the negative backlash Randolph had suffered, including losing several big accounts, had only made him hate Cal more. Refusing to end their friendship was the only time Cal had seen Dane disregard his father’s wishes, for all the good it had done. In an uncharacteristic display of temper, Cal wadded up the paper and threw it at the window.
He got to his feet and paced in agitation for several minutes before deciding to take a shower. A run wouldn’t improve his mood, but maybe talking to Dane would. If he could be certain this was what Dane really wanted, he would accept it. Maybe it had been love at first sight, and Dane hadn’t wanted to tell him. Right, and maybe a winged pig would go cruising past his high-rise window any moment now. Dane was as gay as Cal was himself, even if he was in denial about it. Now it was up to Cal to convince his friend to take a stand before Dane made a mistake that would ruin his life.
And as much as he wanted to be unselfish about it, Cal had to admit it would ruin his life too.
DANE STARED at the announcement, feeling so removed from his own engagement that it might as well have happened to someone else. The announcement was large and attention-grabbing, just like his father wanted it to be.
Randolph Coulter had been trying to repair his reputation ever since he’d insulted Cal Monroe during an interview. He was rich enough that not many doors would close to him outright, but several prestigious accounts had moved from Randolph’s firm to Cal’s as a result, and a few people had cooled toward him. Randolph couldn’t stand to lose anything, and Dane suspected his engagement and subsequent wedding would be co-opted to help Randolph lure those people back into his social circle.
Portia’s smile seemed genuine in their engagement photo, but Dane thought he looked awful, probably because all that had been going through his mind when the picture had been taken was a litany of “shit shit shit.” He didn’t look at all like a happy groom-to-be, but how could he when this engagement felt like another bar being added to his cell?
He pushed the newspaper aside and looked down at the plate of cold eggs, bacon, and toast, and then he pushed that aside as well. His stomach was in knots—more so than usual. His doctor had warned him he was on his way to developing an ulcer, but trying to reduce the amount of stress in his life was a futile act as long as Randolph was around.
His cell phone rang, and relief flashed through him when a glance at the screen showed it was Portia calling, not Randolph. He picked it up and answered.
“Good morning, Dane.” Portia’s voice was smooth and calm as always, and Dane was grateful she didn’t sound like a giddy bride. “Have you seen the paper?”
“I’m looking at it right now,” he said, picking up the society section again. “What do you think?”
“It’s a little more… ostentatious than I expected,” she said, seeming to choose her words with care.
“That’s my father for you. Go big or go home is his motto,” Dane said, and Portia chuckled.
“I’ll have to speak with him at lunch today. Just because I agreed to let him help plan the wedding doesn’t mean I want it turned into a three-ring circus.”
“Good luck with that,” Dane said dryly.
“I’ve dealt with men more stubborn than your father,” Portia said. “But it would be nice to know you’ll have my back.” She paused, and when Dane didn’t reply, she pressed him. “You will, won’t you?”
Dane released a slow breath, knowing that was a promise he might not be able to keep. “Father isn’t accustomed to not getting his way, especially where I’m concerned,” he said. “But I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Portia said, her voice infused with warmth. “I’ll see you later. You’re picking me up?”
“Yes, I’ll be there.”
After the call ended, Dane put his phone aside and stared at the photo again, lost in thought until a knock on the door interrupted his brooding. It was a short, impatient rapping, as though whoever was outside was agitated. Dane frowned as he stood up and headed for the door. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and he hoped it wasn’t Randolph stopping by to subject him to a litany of all the ways the article had failed to live up to Randolph’s expectations. The knots in his stomach tightened as he opened the door and braced himself.
Instead of his father, however, he found Cal Monroe on his doorstep, and he barely kept himself from sagging with relief. Cal was a tall, broad-shouldered man who wouldn’t look out of place tossing cabers at a Highland Games, complete with a kilt. But Cal had a keen mind to go with his burly frame, and he was a fair-minded employer who created an atmosphere of open-mindedness and respect at his firm. Unlike Coulter and Coulter, Caldwell and Monroe rarely saw employee turnover, and Dane wouldn’t have been surprised if there were far more applications for new positions at Cal’s firm as well.
Dane had always admired Cal’s courage and strength in standing up for his principles. Cal was passionate and dedicated to making the world a better place, and he wasn’t afraid to show the world exactly who he was. Unlike Dane.
They’d met a little over two years ago while serving on opposite sides of a case. Randolph had wanted Dane to take a more aggressive stance, but Dane’s instincts led him to accept Cal’s offer to work out a compromise through arbitration. In the end, both clients were satisfied with the outcome, and Dane and Cal established a cordial professional relationship that grew into friendship after Randolph moved Coulter and Coulter into the same building occupied by Caldwell and Monroe. Dane kept running into Cal in the elevator, in the lobby, or at lunch, and the more they talked, the more attached—and attracted—he grew to Cal Monroe.
Randolph had tried to bully Dane into severing all ties with Cal, but for once, Dane refused. Cal’s unconditional friendship gave Dane the stability he desperately wanted and offered him a respite from the isolation Randolph imposed on him through constant professional and familial demands. Cal’s friendship was one of the few normal aspects of Dane’s life, and he attributed Cal’s concern and support to helping him see clearly the bars of the cage he was trapped in at last. He was unable to escape the cage, but he knew it was there and tried in small ways to push the bars back, if only a little.
Cal’s thick auburn hair was mussed, damp with melting snow because he’d apparently forgotten a hat, and his green eyes looked shadowed for once, rather than bright with good humor. Instead of his usual tailored suit, he was wearing faded jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket that made his shoulders seem even broader. He regarded Dane in silence for a moment, his gaze intent on Dane’s face, as though he was searching for something. Then he gave a crooked smile. “Hey.”
“What are you doing here?” Dane asked as he stepped aside to let Cal in. “Aren’t you supposed to be running circles around the park right about now?”
The smile faded from Cal’s face as he moved past Dane into the living room. Dane had seen Cal in court before, and he recognized the set of his shoulders from when Cal was preparing himself to argue a difficult case. “I saw the paper. Somehow the thought of running pointlessly around in circles after that seemed particularly ironic.”
Dane gestured to the gray leather sofa, which was a designer piece in the same stark, modern style as everything else in his apartment. Randolph had set him up in the place after he finished law school and began working at the family firm. Dane hadn’t even gotten to decorate; instead, Randolph hired an interior decorator to make the apartment look the way Randolph thought it should look. There was a lot of gray, white, and stainless steel, and it felt like a showplace rather than a home to Dane. He hadn’t bothered to personalize the place, not even with photos, because Randolph would have criticized him for “ruining” the decor.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said as he sat down on one end of the sofa.
Cal took off his leather jacket, tossing it carelessly over a chair before taking the other end of the sofa. But he turned his body toward Dane, and the expression on his face was almost imploring. “I have to know if this engagement is really what you want.”